Just Because Senator Tommy Tuberville Is Stupid Doesn’t Mean He’s Not Dangerous

Just Because Senator Tommy Tuberville Is Stupid Doesn’t Mean He’s Not Dangerous

Just Because Senator Tommy Tuberville Is Stupid Doesn’t Mean He’s Not Dangerous

His comments on white nationalism spring from the desire for a Proud Boys army.


Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has done a huge favor to anyone who wants to argue that he’s a profoundly stupid man by providing a mountain of evidence. In November 2020, soon after being elected, he gave an interview indicating that he thinks the three branches of the United States government are “the House, the Senate and executive,” rather than the legislative, the judicial, and the executive. He’s claimed that Democrats want reparations for slavery “because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.” He’s twice been involved in businesses that turn out to be ridiculously fraudulent. He’s boasted that he’d raise money from his Senate office—a scheme that is not only sleazy but would in fact be a crime.

In recent weeks, Tuberville has been entangled in political conflicts that are excruciatingly embarrassing and politically damaging for the Republican Party. He has blocked hundreds of promotions in the military—including the commandant of the Marine Corps—in order to protest the Defense Department policy of allowing access to abortion for service members. Speaking on an Alabama radio show in May, Tuberville objected to efforts to keep white nationalists out of the military.

“The Democrats are attacking our military, saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists, people that don’t believe in our agenda,” Tuberville lamented. The senator’s office later clarified this statement to indicate that he “was being skeptical of the notion that there are white nationalists in the military, not that he believes they should be in the military.”

Speaking on CNN on Monday, Tuberville showed this clarification was a lie by repeatedly claiming that white nationalists were not racists. According to Tuberville, “My opinion of a white nationalist, if someone wants to call them white nationalist, to me is an American.” When criticized for this bizarre defense of white nationalism, Tuberville made the equally strange claim that as a football coach, he couldn’t possibly be racist. Colin Kaepernick, among others, might contest the idea that football is exempt from racism. After his comments on white nationalism were disavowed by fellow Republican Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Thune of South Dakota, Tuberville on Tuesday admitted the obvious: that white nationalism is racism.

Surveying Tuberville’s career, one is inevitably reminded of Groucho Marx’s classic quip in Duck Soup (1933) that brother Chico “may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” No wonder Ryan Cooper in The American Prospect described the senator as “an airhead former football coach.” More colorfully, Alabama columnist Kyle Whitmire voiced an undeniable truth when he wrote that “we didn’t need more proof that Tuberville says and does stupid stuff. He’s left a trail behind him the way pulpwood trucks belch smoke along back country roads.”

Yet calling attention to Tuberville’s manifest cloddishness only tells part of the story. Idiocy in high office is usually not just a personal failure but a manifestation of something worse: a willful ignorance designed to advance a sinister agenda. My colleague John Nichols recently wrote about some foolish words by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley that falsely portrayed the American revolution as motivated by a desire to create a Christian state. As Nichols rightly noted, Hawley’s comments should be rejected not just because they are factually wrong but also because they are motivated by a theocratic worldview.

Similarly, Tuberville’s recent actions—both his push to rescind access to abortion for service members and his whitewashing of white nationalism—are not the work of ignorance but spring from a coherent agenda of asserting right-wing control over the military.

The crucial fact of American politics in the last few years is that Donald Trump repeatedly tried to gain autocratic power, efforts that culminated in the farcical storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump’s attempts to subvert American democracy failed in no small part because he never had the military on his side.

The extreme right has been fuming about the “woke” military ever since. Part of that alleged “wokeness” is that the military resisted some of Trump’s illegal commands, notably his desire for a crackdown after the George Floyd uprising in the summer of 2020. “Wokeness” also includes efforts by the Pentagon, which have intensified since the January 6 coup attempt, to purge overt white nationalists from the ranks. Former Fox host Tucker Carlson in particular tried to make the dangers of a “woke” military a major issue.

Tuberville sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. His stance on abortion access and white nationalism makes sense as a domination move. Tuberville is trying to reclaim the supposedly woke military for the right.

The American right, including the hard right, sees the military as an institution that belongs to them by right. The threat of white nationalist infiltration of the military is real: For many decades white nationalist have, with occasional success, tried to establish a beachhead in the military. Even the conservatives on the Supreme Court recognize the need for a racially diverse military (hence the carve-out for affirmative action in military academies in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard).

If there is a future Republican president who tries, as Trump did, to use the military to crush domestic opposition, he or she will need to have a more compliant military. Tuberville is working to ensure that that happens. In trying to stop abortion access for service members, he’s trying to make a military that is better suited to serve Christian theocrats. In challenging efforts to keep overt white nationalists out of the ranks, Tuberville is trying to create the Proud Boys in full military regalia—and armed with all the machinery of killing furnished by the military-industrial complex.

It’s hard not to laugh at Tommy Tuberville, given his many foolish statements. But his actions spring from a coherent and dangerous political agenda. Unless that agenda is seen for what it is—and forthrightly opposed—Tuberville may well get the last laugh.

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